When Comics Get Political
In this column I will dive into times throughout superhero history that comics got political. There seems to be a constant debate on if political discussion has a place in the medium. I hope to show that politics and superhero comics go together. This week Animal Man #13 tackles the South African Apartheid.
***For readers who are not in the know, South Africa’s Apartheid system was a legal means to separate blacks and whites. Much like The USA’s system of segregation, it was a way to keep the white population in control. Voting rights were restricted and taken away, police brutality among the black population was accepted and encouraged, and the freedom of protest was removed.***
The late 1980s Animal Man run (written by Grant Morrison) touched on many social justice issues. This may even be a series we return to in later entries, as there is too much for one article. This issue in particular deals with the South African Apartheid and giving the region a hero to call their own. Animal Man was already in Africa dealing with the previous arc and now meets up with B’Wana Beast (Maxwell). B’Wana Beast knows he needs to pass on the mantle and find a new person to take his name. The person they find is a black photographer named Dominic Mndawe who is imprisoned for being out in a white neighborhood past curfew. The story pulls no punches, as Dominic is shown suffering from police brutality and verbal abuse full of strong racist language. To add to this, the entire story takes place during riots in South Africa as the people fight the system of oppression.
Grant Morrison: Social Justice Warrior
Author intent is fairly clear here. Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man is known for two things: his postmodernist deconstruction of the superhero genre and using the comic to express social justice issues. Morrison was brought up in a family of social activists and even used to help his father break into nuclear facilities in order to take pictures. Much can be said of how Animal Man was a book about animal rights, but it was this issue where he focused on human rights. There are direct parallels between the way he shows animal abuse in early issues and the abuse of Dominic and the black population of South Africa here.
South Africa, the Apartheid, and the USA/UK
Today talking about the apartheid holds no controversy. Only a real racist zealot would defend the system. However, during the time of this comic, this was not the case. George H. W. Bush was only recently elected, and started to move toward the public demand of opposing the Apartheid. Previously the Reagan presidency (which was in power for a good portion of the Animal Man run) supported the South African government, even vetoing sanctions against the Apartheid state. Grant Morrison, being a british citizen, would have also been familiar with the UK’s Prime Minister’s stance (Margaret Thatcher). Thatcher was clear on many occasions that she was against sanctions toward South Africa. Further putting this issue into this spotlight is Nelson Mandela. Mandela would later become a celebrated President of South Africa but was sentenced to imprisonment for speaking out and organizing against the government. When this issue hit the stands, Mandela was still a political prisoner. Protests for his release was a regular occurrence worldwide, and controversial among world leaders.
The New Beast
Grant Morrison brings the politics and the story together perfectly when he introduces us to the new B’Wana Beast. Firstly, it is important that the mantle of this African superhero is being passed on from a white character to a black character. Symbolizing the hopeful passing of power in the region. B’Wana Beast even mentions that it is slightly strange that he is a white man holding the title. However, he is unsure of passing the torch as he states to Dominic, “I am warning you now, the Beast belongs to mythology. It was here before the whites, and it will still be here when they’ve gone. It’s beyond politics.” This is a fairly privileged view of the surrounding situation, coming from a white man. Dominic responds that nothing is beyond politics and retells the story of his school being attacked when he was a child (for refusing to learn Afrikaans). Dominic declares, “where was the African hero when African children were dying? I tell you it won’t happen again.” Maxwell seems upset, and continues to harp on “It’s not about politics.” However, by the end of the issue, he becomes an ally and helps stop an act of police brutality against protesters. Dominic takes up the mantle of B’Wana Beast but changes the name to Freedom Beast. It isn’t subtle but it still is incredibly powerful.
Putting a mainline DC comic book in the heart of the South African conflict was a bold move. It is one that Morrison, and the editorial team, should take full credit for. Captain America was punching Nazis in the 40s, so it only makes sense that Superheros punch white supremacists in South Africa in the 19080s. If superheroes do not stand up against the contemporary injustices of the world around us, where is the inspiration in that?